Minnie, Hansen, and Carrie: Sister Carrie, Ambition, Toil, and Laziness

In the passage in Chapter 7, entitled “The Lure of the Material: Beauty Speaks for Itself,” Carrie has just returned to her sister Minnie, with whom she’s staying. The scenes with Minnie and Carrie are often tense because Carrie’s values and expectations differ greatly from those of her older sister – essentially, Minnie’s lived a hard life in Chicago, and believes that to get ahead one must work hard, be industrious, frugal, and be mindful of how decisions affect the family.

In the build-up to the scene, Carrie is searching for work after losing her job because of a bout of illness. Work is very difficult to find and even more difficult for a sheltered girl like Carrie who doesn’t have the skills, nor the survival instinct of her peers (or her sister, for that matter). Because she is not working, she is in a precarious position with her sister and her brother-in-law, both of whom view Carrie’s current station with wariness. During the scene in Chapter 7, Carrie approaches Minnie to ease her mind: if she cannot find work, she will return back home to Wisconsin and abandon her desire to live and work in the city. Instead of protesting, Minnie agrees, perhaps relieved that it’s Carrie who suggested the move first. Carrie’s feelings are obviously hurt because though she understood that Minnie and Hansen were perturbed by Carrie’s joblessness, she nonetheless felt a sting when Minnie readily agreed.

After intervention with Drouet, the handsome and kindly salesman Carrie met on her first day in Chicago, Carrie leaves. She leaves a note for her sister with a brief note, not explaining anything, but stressing that Minnie should not worry. In the beginning of Chapter 8, we see that Minnie has read the letter and laments for her sister – not out of sisterly love or affection, but of an instinctual understanding that her sister’s fate and her morality would be lost.

Theodore Dreiser opens Sister Carrie with this line:

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. (1)

It’s clear from his introduction that Dreiser views the city as a corrupting influence on young women – particularly a young woman, idealistic and naive like Carrie. So when we reach the point in the novel when she leaves the “saving hands” of her sister and brother-in-law and wanders into untested territory, that she is in danger of becoming “worse.” The passage in Chapter 8 that I am looking at in particular has an steady blend of diegesis and narration, as we at once see the actions of Minnie discovering Carrie’s note and discussing its contents with her husband, but we also read Dreiser’s ruminations on human nature, particular when people like Carrie feel unsatisfied with their lives and attempt to strike out.

Because evolution is an important theme in naturalism, Dreiser opens Chapter 8 by explaining that because of social progress and social evolution, people are in a strange limbo, unable to rely on either instinct or reason because in the progression of humanity, people are somewhere in the middle. He writes “Our civilisation is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason” (70). The point of Dreiser’s theorizing on human evolution and behavior is that he points out that Carrie doesn’t operate on reason, but by desire and want – which is seen to be a ruinous impulse.

There is some tension between Dreiser’s writing and the diegesis – namely in how one interprets Carrie’s life. Do we read Carrie’s ascent toward stage stardom as a degradation of her character? And if Dreiser’s ruminations on the subject is linked to Carrie, can’t we also link these thoughts toward other characters – namely Hurstwood, who like Carrie, moved forward on his needs and wants, disregarding his social status, his family, and his career. I’m not arguing that Dreiser doesn’t judge Hurstwood, but he does create a double standard in how he approaches male characters versus female characters. Female virtue is tied in her innocence, an innocence that needs to be protected and saved.

The conversation between Hansen and Minnie is important because it encapsulates the kind of judgment women face when they’re forging their own lives that are focused on their own desires. It’s important that when Dreiser is writing about Carrie’s leaving, he writes “She followed whither her craving” (71). In Carrie, because she’s a woman, the kind of ambition that would eventually lead to Hurstwood’s downfall, is dismissed as foolish whimsy.

The relationship between Minnie and Hansen dominates the passage in question, and in the brief exchange we see how the two approached their relationship with Carrie. As Dreiser wrote Carrie as a woman existing purely on want and desire, the contrast is very much pronounced: Hansen and Minnie live lives that are wholly predicated on morality and economy. It’s clear that the two do not lead frivolous lives and view Carrie as being a burden – but more importantly than that, they also see Carrie as being ill-equipped to survive. Because she had relative comfort and safety at home, she didn’t understand the sacrifices necessary to survive, nor did she have responsibilities like Hansen and Minnie did – her life was a solitary one, beholden to no one. Hansen and Minnie were dependent on each other for survival, and as such, did not have the single-mindedness of Carrie – they did not operate on “craving” but instead lived their lives with a heavy and constant emphasis on thrift, frugality, and care.

When Dreiser writes Hansen and Minnie he describes their reactions as cynical and knowing. There’s a sense of impending doom in their assessment of Carrie’s acts. In their eyes, Carrie’s probably going to become a fallen woman. Knowing what we know as readers in hindsight, it’s debatable as to how extreme Carrie’s downfall is, in terms of her humanity, but it’s clear from the knowing reactions of Minnie and Hansen, that Carrie’s fate is sealed in their estimation. Of course, this leads into questions of prostitution, and it’s still unclear whether Dreiser sees Carrie as being a prostitute. She is a kept woman, and Drouet manages to string her along for a bit by promising marriage, though realistically, he would never marry her. But the prostitution question is an important one to raise because Minnie and Hansen both assume that Carrie is fated to be a prostitute, and some may argue that they weren’t wrong.

The scene following Minnie’s discovery, Carrie wakes up in her new bedroom. Again, Dreiser gives us both diegesis and narration as we discover that Carrie’s filled with angst that may justify Minnie’s and Hansen’s cynicism. Dreiser writes that Carrie worries “whether she would get something to do” (72) and soon after when Drouet calls on Carrie, she insists that she find work. She’s troubled because she’s not a “sensualist, longing to drowse sleepily in the lap of luxury” (72). While Carrie’s sense of self is admirable, it’s a little difficult to reconcile this troubled Carrie with the ID-driven Carrie who operates only by desire. How does Dreiser combine these two seemingly incongruous impulses: one to work solely out of desire and the other to be industrious and ambitious?

Also, assigning these admirable qualities in Carrie is a little strange only because we are shown just how difficult work and toil is for our protagonist, and just what a contrast she is compared to her more industrious sister and brother-in-law. There’s a rip in the consistency because we see that Carrie does have ambition, but her ambition did not fit into the kind of work a woman of her station and skills was able to find. As an actress, she was ruthless, using Hurstwood to further her career (though Hurstwood is not blameless in his downfall – and in fact, his life has also been driven by desire and arrogance).

The narration that Dreiser opened Chapter 8 with is interesting because he doesn’t only delve into evolution, but he also attacks free will. He writes, “We see man…his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to free-will, his free-will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts” (70). The question of free will in Sister Carrie is an important one because the plot always puts free will into question. Does Carrie really have free will? Do the other characters – minor and supporting – have free will? When Dreiser describes the workers in a newly-industrialized Chicago, he shows a stratification of privilege and power. The working class and the working poor may not necessarily have the same amount of free will, or the same access to exercise free will.

But Carrie and free will is an interesting concept because though initially she was part of the struggling working class – almost a cliché of the job seeker pounding the pavement – but she gains privilege because of her beauty, charm, and intelligence. She later gains more privilege because of her charisma, talent, and skill. We get both sides, so to speak, because as Sister Carrie progresses, it appears that Carrie has more access to free will, and she becomes more calculating.

What’s also important when we read Hansen and Minnie’s reactions to Carrie’s departure is just how wide the gulf stretched between the married couple and Carrie. The divide is partly due to the sharp differences in lifestyle and demeanor, but Carrie and Minnie were also somewhat estranged because of distance. There was no real affection between the two women – Minnie opened up to her sister solely because of familial obligation, and interestingly enough, her sisterly obligation was rubbing up against her wifely obligation, and it was clear that she found her commitment to Hansen more important (also because her relationship with Hansen was tied up with motherhood, too) than her relationship with Carrie.

But another thing the exchange highlights is just how little the two know Carrie. The doom that they predicted for Carrie means that she was no different to them than any other girl in Chicago. She was merely a statistic, an anecdote or an example of Dreiser’s thesis that young women cannot survive intact in the city. When Minnie cries, “poor Sister Carrie” (71) it’s not a cry of true sorrow but pity. It would be hard to believe that any sister would naturally assume that her sister would be “ruined” forever – to jump to such a conclusion tells a lot about the relationship, and yet, Minnie felt she understood clearly that Carrie was gone forever.

But we are given the next scene to show that though Carrie’s lot in life isn’t necessarily respectable (at least according to the standards of turn-of-the-century Chicago), she hasn’t fallen into disrepute. Yet. Carrie shares many of the same concerns that Minnie does – essentially, Carrie worries about her self-worth. If she’s not working and if she’s being supported by her partner – unmarried partner – what is she worth? What is her currency? We see that Drieser has a cynical view of marriage, especially when we look at the Hurstwoods – the love and romance has seeped out, and in its place rests complacency and mutual dependence: Hurstwood needs his wife and children to play up the role of the respectable family man, and Mrs. Hurstwood needs her husband for financial support. Mrs. Hurstwood’s worth and currency is established: she has power and influence over her husband and she has a kind of privilege that eludes Carrie in her relationship with Drouet. The power dynamics of the two couples are very different and pronounced: Carrie is solely dependent on her male partner, but she is not an equal member of the relationship. Carrie is lucky that Drouet is kind and genial and somewhat dim and superficial, otherwise, her status and position would be in peril. Mrs. Hurstwood, on the other hand, is secure – now, to be clear, I’m not arguing that the Hurstwoods marriage is one of loving equals, committing to each other and their children. No marriage in Sister Carrie is idealized like that: even Minnie’s marriage to Hansen is one of drudgery and duty. Though Hansen lights up when he’s dandling his baby, his demeanor and carriage is one of stiffness and distance. But Mrs. Hurstwood has power and privilege, and she’s not too shy to wield it when necessary to get her way.

In Dreiser’s short work, “McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers” evolution and free will is represented by a colony of ants in battle. The title character is a man who finds himself suddenly an insect, and who slowly feels his reason melt away in favor of instinct. Reading Sister Carrie is interesting as a companion piece of sorts, because evolution and instinct is something that concerns Dreiser greatly – how much of Carrie’s behavior is instinct, divorced from free will, and how much of it is calculated and thought out? At certain points it feels as if she’s being not only kept by the men in her life, but also carried – swept away by their romantic gestures and promises of a better life. She allows for these interferences because they afford her a bit of freedom and privilege that she was denied when she lived with Minnie and Hansen. Though she was often without Drouet, she had time to shop and to sight see with acquaintances, and she had time to indulge in her interest in the theater – an important element in the novel as it later would reverse the relationship between Hurstwood and Carrie – and reverse their respective fortunes.

There are two things happening in the beginning of Chapter 8 – parallel messages that Dreiser is giving us: (1) human beings are in the throes of evolution and are constantly in battle with instinct, common sense, and desire and (2) Carrie has made an important and fateful decision that will forever change her life and her relationship with her family. The two are linked because we’re told that Carrie’s motivation are often ruled by instinct and desire – a need for gratification (though again, this idea is complicated by Carrie’s inherent ambition and later success as a stage actress). We’re given the extreme example of Hansen and Minnie, both of whom are able to lay aside their instinctual desires for a “greater good.” We also see a stark absence of genuine love and affection, because in Dreiser’s world, love and affection doesn’t necessarily factor into relationships, and often love and affection (coupled with greed and arrogance) work counter to evolution. If Minnie’s love for Carrie was more demonstrative and indulgent, then she would be at odds with her husband, her primary caregiver and the father of her child. And we see that Hurstwood’s affection and love for Carrie is his ultimate downfall. When we look at “McEwan of the Shining Slave Makers” we see ideas of duty and desire for the common good, but we also see an absence of sincere love and friendship. These two concepts can be lumped in with selfishness and being spoiled as attributes that hinder evolution and progress in the context of Sister Carrie. In the end, Minnie couldn’t be too sad for Carrie because once she married Hansen, her evolutionary road branched off into another direction, separating her from her blood relatives. It’s also clear that once Carrie learns to watch for herself and to become more calculating, that she succeeds as well. All that remains is the question of did Carrie find herself at the end of the novel, or did she lose herself?

Works Cited

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

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Filed under Academic Paper, Book, classic literature, commentary, Writing

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